“Won’t someone please think about URLs?!”
Web design is a vast and complex field. Much ink has been spilled, tackling the latest technologies for front and back end, the latest visual and interaction design trends, the latest usability best practices, the latest methodologies for building and project-managing, the latest marketing and SEO techniques, and so on. However, what’s rarely talked about in depth, even though it plays an important role in all these facets of web design, is the humble URL.
Most of us know of URLs, or “Uniform Resource Locators,” as page addresses on the web. However, as their full name suggests, they are used for much more than just locating web pages. Every image, video, sound clip or advert that you see within a page has its own URL. Even application program interfaces (APIs) that sites and apps use behind the scenes have URLs. In fact, each and every thing that can be accessed or interacted with on the web has a URL.
URLs Matter In User Experience
For the most part, users are blissfully unaware of URLs. They might notice them in their browser address bar (although browsers are increasingly hiding URLs), or in any non-digital media that promotes a website – for example, a poster ad featuring www.companyname.com – but users are manually entering or editing URLs at dwindling rates. Nevertheless, this does not diminish the importance of URLs in the user experience.
When you share something on social media, you are actually sharing a URL. When you click a link on a search engine results page, you are being sent to a URL that the search engine’s spider previously found and indexed. When you view analytics for your website, they are collected and collated per URL. When you bookmark a page in your browser, you are actually saving that page’s URL.
URLs enable a lot of valuable functionality for your users and keeping your users happy is good for your business too. The more things that link to or otherwise reference your URLs, the better for your business because inbound links increase the likelihood of content and services being discovered and consumed. The greater the reach, the more views and conversions you will get.
If you change the URL of a useful resource – a page, a picture, or an API, for example – you risk losing the value of whatever inbound links it has accumulated. (In the case of APIs, you also risk breaking apps that depend on that URL.) If you remove resources, causing their corresponding URLs to return errors such as the infamous “404 Not Found,” you also lose value. If you have many different URLs providing the same resource, you dilute the value of inbound links because it’s fragmented across various URLs.
HTTP redirects, canonical link tags and other techniques can help cleanly migrate or consolidate URLs but, left unchecked, they can also grow into a maintenance headache. A bit of foresight and planning of your URLs can help you avoid needing them at all.
The URL Strategy
Enter the “URL strategy.” The goal of your URL strategy must be to make all of your web resources available via unique, stable and long-lived URLs. How you reach that goal will vary from case to case, but here are some pointers to get you started:
- Do an inventory. Do you know which URLs your organization controls? If not, conduct an inventory. This will help you when:
- Considering changes to your URLs – for example, for a website redesign or CMS migration
- Identifying existing problems such as redundant or duplicate URLs
- Integrate URL planning in early stages of project management. When embarking on new web projects consider URLs as early as possible:
- If your URLs reflect your site’s information architecture (IA), ask yourself if the IA is intended to be long-lived or likely to change?
- Are your URLs succinct and descriptive? Humans will still see them from time to time – especially if you intend to promote your URL via traditional media such as print or TV – so it pays to have memorable ones. For example, http://foo.com/products/super-widget gives the user a good idea of what they can expect from it and is easier to recall than something like http://foo.com/b/?ref=352s&prod_index=3242gb&lang=en!
- If purchasing a new domain name, does your organization intend to keep and pay for the name indefinitely?
- Does your technology impose restrictions on URL structures? If so, what are the impacts on users’ ability to share and/or search engines’ ability to index URLs?
- Can you use technical and process-driven safeguards to prevent duplicate or throw-away URLs?
- Establish a documented process for handling URLs. Create a documented process for changing and retiring URLs.
- Do you have criteria to meet before a web resource can be moved or retired?
These steps can help optimize your websites now and also prepare them for future iterations. The specifics will need to be adapted to each organization and project, but an important first step is to recognize that URLs are assets in their own right that need to be carefully considered, designed and maintained. While they might not always be visible, URLs have always been and will always be a core piece of the Web’s infrastructure, so ignore them at your peril.